In Search of Thailand's Best Spa Resorts

Herbert Ympa

Thailand is known for having some of the best spas in the world. Are they all they're cracked up to be?

Ayurveda, acupuncture, shiatsu, reflexology, yoga. Asian techniques have permeated Western practices of well-being for decades, with new trends appearing in American spas every few years, the latest being the rise of Thai massage techniques, Chinese herbal treatments for detoxing and tai chi fitness classes. Yet not all of these methods have been imported in their purest form; we’ve interpreted them to fit our need for results-oriented solutions. Whereas Eastern philosophy is holistic—teaching us how to change our hectic lifestyle, release emotion and stress, heal ourselves mentally and physically—Western ideals are scientific and medical. “And with their beautiful surroundings, Asian spas have that ‘wow’ factor,” says Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th surgeon general of the United States and now the CEO of Canyon Ranch Health and president of the iconic American spa’s institute in Tucson, Arizona. “What they do not have is the depth and breadth of services.”

With Thailand having carved out a reputation as one of Asia’s best wellness destinations, from grassroots to luxury, departures decided to investigate, spending a total of ten days visiting urban spas in Bangkok, then flying east and south to two very different resorts: one a truly Asian brand, Soneva Kiri by Six Senses, and the other Western with Eastern influences due to its locale, Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve.

Soneva Kiri by Six Senses

Say “Thailand beaches,” and the first island that comes to mind is Phuket, which is precisely why we headed for the lesser-known Koh Kood, a 50-square-mile island off the east coast offering the same white powder beaches and crystal clear waters without the crowds. Situated in Koh Chang Marine National Park in the Thai Gulf, Koh Kood features a small fishing village, some rubber tree plantations, two breathtaking waterfalls and Soneva Kiri by Six Senses, which opened in December 2009 with a year’s worth of growing pains due to construction problems and only recently has been ready for prime time.

The resort’s remote location makes getting there a high-end experience. The journey begins at New Bangkok International Airport (Suvarnabhumi), where Soneva Kiri has its own counter and representative to escort you to the first-class lounge while your customs documents are taken care of. After you’ve refreshed, you board an eight-seat Cessna Grand Caravan for the hour-long flight to Koh Maisie, the tiny island next to Koh Kood that provides the resort’s private airstrip. It’s then a quick five-minute boat ride to the main village-like complex with its ice cream stand, chocolate factory, art gallery, library, boutiques and dining areas, all designed in an ecofriendly, wood-and-bamboo, tented tree-house style. Your butler takes you via electric buggy, which is yours for the duration of your stay, to your villa, one of 29 located on the beach or cliffside with panoramic views.

A “no news, no shoes” policy means the hidden flatscreen TV in your villa’s master bedroom only plays DVDs and you’re encouraged to walk everywhere barefoot. But it also sets the tone for a relaxed, laid-back vibe that forces you to unwind and embrace Six Senses Spa’s SLOW LIFE concept: Sustainable, Local, Organic, Wholesome, Learning, Inspiring, Fun and Experiences. At Soneva Kiri, the largest of the Six Senses Spas, this philosophy is combined with Thai healing therapies using local ingredients to create herbal body scrubs and ointments for facials. The spa is the opposite of clinical, featuring open-air treatment rooms and exercise lofts with spectacular views and outdoor baths and showers.


Here traditional Thai massage, in which therapists use their hands, legs, knees and feet to push and pull your body in various yoga-like stretches, exemplifies what makes this country’s people so naturally gifted at kneading out tight muscles. Resident practitioner Khun Jang, who hails from the northeast of Thailand, uses her palms to loosen muscles, her thumbs to release tension and her elbows and forearms to apply even deeper pressure. She doesn’t hesitate to hop onto the massage table with her petite, nimble body to work through the knots. “If guest is big person,” she says, “we can do flat on a Thai mattress.” For Jang massaging is intuitive, a practice she can do for hours on end without tiring. In fact, all the therapists I experienced, here and in Bangkok, where I visited the spa at Mandarin Oriental, worked slowly, deliberately, never rushing to get to the next step in the treatment.

Jang consults with me afterward. Her specialty is Chi Nei Tsang, a therapy that addresses problems in the digestive system. “I tell you, the second brain of the human is at the stomach,” she explains. “If you have a lot of anger, stress, excitement or depression, you have trouble through the stomach.” She takes a basic massage to the next level, focusing on the internal organs. “I do deep detail, release the organ. It takes three or four sessions to work through, then I give you some techniques to teach yourself, in your home, to practice by yourself.” After all, it’s part of the wellness journey.

On my last day at Soneva Kiri, as I board the resort’s private jet back to Bangkok for my Thai Airways flight south, I contemplate this assignment: So far, Thailand’s reputation holds true.

Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve

Along the southern coast on the Andaman Sea is the province of Krabi, an hour’s flight or four-hour yacht trip from Phuket. Here Ritz-Carlton Hotels opened its first Reserve property, Phulay Bay, ten months ago. A new collection of low-rise suites and villa resorts, Reserve properties are a departure from the company’s traditional franchise image, offering instead a strong identity with their local surroundings. (A second Reserve, Dorado Beach Resort, is set to open in Puerto Rico in December 2012.)

Thai architect Lek Bunnag, whose credits include the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai and Langkawi and the Oberoi in Bali, designed Phulay Bay with the Reserve’s concept of incorporating the four natural elements—fire, water, air, earth—in every property’s architecture. “Fire creates the romantic setting,” says general manager Estelita Sebeto, evident in the fire pits lit on the beach at dusk and the candles (2,000 alone in the arrival pavilion) flickering everywhere. “Water is represented in the 54 villas with indoor and outdoor bathtubs, rain showers, pools and waterfalls. Air is in the design of open spaces and each villa’s 15-foot-high ceilings.” Earth is in the wood and landscaping, and in the discreet way technology is accessed.

Whether staying in the cozy, traditional beach villas or the stunning, white terrazzo-tiled villas, you’ll have a private butler to address any need—and with a four-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, the service is beyond exceptional. Which is a key factor in why Sebeto hired ESPA, founded by Brit Susan Harmsworth and known worldwide for an Asian aesthetic, to manage the spa, rather than going with a Thai brand.

“I chose ESPA for its international standards and its ability to take local expertise and incorporate it with impeccable protocols,” Sebeto says. “The Thai are very good at Thai massage, but not very well versed in other spa treatments and therapies. Local spas get it in feeling, presentation, warmth; they know very well how to treat Thai customers, but not international clientele.” A claim echoed by former surgeon general Dr. Carmona’s statement, noted earlier. “We wanted an international management company to teach the locals, to open their minds,” explains Sebeto. “The service is there, but the guests who visit have other, higher expectations.”


This is the first destination spa for ESPA in Thailand. When in Bangkok, I had visited an urban outpost at The Peninsula, which was beautiful and all I’d expected from the brand, but once inside, I felt like I could have been in New York or any other Western city, it was that familiar. At Phulay Bay, the spa is situated on a lagoon and surrounded by tropical jungle and limestone hills, with the treatment and relaxation rooms designed to take full advantage of this scenic landscape; even the sauna has a large picture window.

So the visual escape and sensory experience are successfully achieved, but what about the “more Western” treatments on the menu? I chose the Holistic Energy Balancing Ritual with Volcanic Stones, which uses hot stones to release tension, a therapy popularized in California. I expected it to be more of a deep-tissue massage but instead received a warm, Swedish-style treatment. It didn’t feel like the therapist was finding my pain points and working through them; the entire 120 minutes seemed perfunctory and robotic.

To be fair, I’ve yet to find a hot stone massage that compares to the first one I received from a therapist trained by the woman who developed it in the States. But I did begin to think there may be some truth in the idea that all the Thai know is Thai massage. Yet my experiences at Six Senses and another high-end Asian brand, COMO Shambhala, convinced me otherwise. I interviewed an American guest who booked the 120-minute Sun Soothing Ritual, which she said exceeded her expectations. She thought it would involve layers of mud being smoothed on and facial creams being applied, but her therapist, Khun Dao, incorporated a Thai massage method that relieved the tension deeply rooted in her head, neck and shoulders. “The application technique made all the difference,” she said. “I thought I was getting a simple skin treatment, which did calm and repair my sun-exposed skin, but I also got a really deep massage.” For her, the ESPA ritual concept performed by a local Thai therapist worked.

“The Thai are a very proud people,” says Sebeto. “It is a kingdom that has never been conquered, and that has given them a strong sense of pride.” A pride reflected in how they treat visitors, always with a smile (they even named New Bangkok International the “Airport of Smiles”) and an inexhaustible need to please. And when that need is applied to their philosophy of well-being, the experience can be all it’s cracked up to be.

A four-night stay at Soneva Kiri by Six Senses is $7,600 for a one-bedroom villa. Call 66-3/961-9800 or go to Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, is $2,000 for four nights in a Resort Pavilion or a one-bedroom villa. Call 66-7/562-8111 or visit

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